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Penn State Smeal promotes diversity with launch of Minority-Owned Business Network

March 30, 2021

By MELISSA MANNO 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new initiative of the Penn State Smeal College of Business aims to help alumni of color who own businesses network and engage with the University. 

According to Dean Charles H. Whiteman, the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network is designed to afford more opportunities for alumni whose businesses are classified as Black-American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian-Pacific American and Asian-Indian American to become involved in the University’s procurement program. 

“The Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network is a wonderful resource for our minority business owners, from access to the resources of the network to giving and receiving advice on how to navigate procurement processes — including but not limited to Penn State,” Whiteman said. 

Businesses can submit their information to a database on Smeal’s website, where it will be viewable to the public upon approval.

“Small, minority-owned businesses don’t have the same budget that a lot of other companies have to let our presence be known on campus when certain services are needed,” said Troy Cromwell, an alumnus who serves on the Smeal Board of Visitors. “Because of that, those who work in procurement have difficulty finding minority-owned businesses that meet their requirements, so we needed to make it easier for them to find these companies.” 

Cromwell, founder and CEO of CromTec Cyber Solutions, voiced his concerns about the challenges of doing business with the University at a July 15 Smeal Alumni Town Hall: Supporting & Engaging Our Alumni of Color. 

Previously unaware of these challenges, Whiteman immediately began envisioning how the college could help minority-owned businesses like Cromwell’s increase outreach not only to the University but across Pennsylvania as a whole.

Michelle Houser, Smeal’s senior director of Development and Alumni Relations, said the network demonstrates the college’s support of alumni amid a year full of uncertainty.

"The events of the last year highlight just how important it was for the Smeal community to reach out to its alumni of color and look for ways to offer our support and assistance,” Houser said. “I'm so proud of how the college came together to create this resource that will showcase our minority business owners and provide them with equal access to business opportunities both at the University and within the wider Smeal network. We hope this is a valuable tool and that it sparks meaningful connections for our alumni.” 

For Cromwell, this initiative answered the question he and other alumni raised to the University: “How can we put front and center reputable companies of people who have been committed to Penn State, and how can we make it easier for Penn State to reciprocate that relationship?”

Cromwell emphasized that the network isn’t suggesting minority-owned businesses be given first priority, but rather an “equal playing field, consistent competition, and a fair chance when opportunities arise at the University level.” 

Alumna Karla Trotman also had a seat at the table for the Smeal Alumni Town Hall. As the president and CEO of Electro Soft Inc., Trotman said she experienced Penn State’s “siloed approach” for sourcing products — which results in a lack of minority-owned suppliers. 

“If you’re trying to take on an antiracist role as an organization, one of the best ways to do it is to support diverse suppliers,” Trotman said. “Our hope for the network is to allow people to see that we exist, that we’re all in the same community and that Penn State puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, African American women are the leading female minority group of business owners, and women of color are 4.5 times more likely to start their own businesses than any other demographic.

Trotman described her business as “nontraditional” because it offers a unique product that people may not know they need until they see it. Smeal’s Minority-Owned Business Network provides her and other business owners the opportunity to explain their services on an interconnected platform.  

The launch of the network comes at a pivotal time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to major losses in revenue for minority-owned businesses. According to a new poll by advocacy group Small Business Majority, the next few months will result in 32 percent of Black businesses closing temporarily, 23 percent closing an office or location, and 18 percent shutting down forever.

“That’s a tremendous loss on all the gains that have been made throughout scores of years,” Trotman said, emphasizing the way many business owners and their families suffer just to keep their business afloat.

Trotman said she hopes the new Minority-owned Business Network will continue to foster an environment where increasing diversity is viewed as a method of improvement. 

For Smeal, the initiative demonstrates a commitment to implementing strategies to celebrate, promote and prioritize diversity across the college community.

“You can put out statements about equity, diversity and inclusion, but it’s all meaningless until you put resources and energy behind it — which we are seeing Penn State Smeal do,” Trotman said. “Smeal has the desire to make that change and puts forward that energy, which makes Smeal unique against many other institutions and fortune 500 companies.”

To learn more about the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network, visit the college’s website.

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